Northeast 2019: A Failure to Capture the Narrative
Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Money Control
The trend for the other Northeastern states in the Lok Sabha elections 2019 has been consistent with that of Assam. Collectively in terms of numbers, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained the lion's share of seats, eight seats in Assam and eight in the other Northeastern constituencies collectively – if one were to count the three constituencies of North Bengal as well. However, what is different is that in Assam, the BJP's allies did not win a single seat, hence, the National Democratic Alliance's numbers in the state were made up solely by the seats the BJP won. The picture is different in the other constituencies of the Northeast where the NDA tally reached a record fourteen out of fifteen. The lone non-NDA seat went to the Congress' Vincent H Pala for the Shillong constituency. A BJP or NDA victory in the Northeast would seem most strange if one were to consider the events and issues that arose in the Northeast in the recent past.
In February 2019, Arunachal Pradesh witnessed large scale rioting and vandalism in Itanagar and the surrounding areas over the proposal to issue permanent resident certificates (PRC) to persons belonging to specific communities in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Peace was suspended for around four days. The entire issue arose when the BJP deputy chief minister, Chowna Mein made some comments to the effect that PRCs will be granted when touring in the eastern part of the state. Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe (APST) civil society organisations objected, fearing that the PRC would be treated at par with the Scheduled Tribe (ST) certificates they possess. Instead of clarifying what the implications of the PRC would mean for APSTs, the government chose to continue asserting that granting PRCs was just a matter of time. The BJP state government had begun to clarify the implications of the PRC, only when the protesters had laid siege and trapped them inside the secretariat on the first day of rioting.
The Congress state unit failed to capture the narrative when the dust settled. Instead, the civil society organisations were blamed for the rioting. Thus, the BJP government despite all its failings dodged the misgovernance and mismanagement bullets.
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The Arunachal East constituency was the domain of Ninong Ering of Congress. He, however, contested the Assembly elections from Pasighat West which he won by a margin of 571 votes against the BJP’s candidate, Er. Tatung Jamoh. The Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha seat, Lowangcha Wanglat finished as a runner up with a margin of 69,948 votes. Arunachal East went to the BJP state unit president, Tapir Gao who received 52.38% of the votes. In Arunachal West, Kiren Rijiju trounced former Congress chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Nabam Tuki with a margin of 1,74,843 votes. Rijiju’s vote share was higher at 63.02%. As far as Ninong Ering is concerned, he has been a strong candidate for the Congress. As a member of the 16th Lok Sabha, he raised several issues pertaining to his constituency with the BJP government at the centre.
Apart from the long standing demands of ST status for the Meitei community and the implementation of a system akin to the inner line permit (ILP) system, Manipur has been in a semi-limbo over the Indo-Naga deal. To the Naga nationalists, the hills of northern Manipur constitute ‘Southern Nagalim’, as a sizeable majority of the population can be identified as Naga. This has been a cause for concern in Manipur for decades. Moreover, after the anti-merger movement died a quiet death with that of Hijam Irabot, the Naga nationalists had spilled over from Nagaland and had made inroads in the hills of Manipur. The Manipuri nationalist movement was revived two decades later. It was around the peak of the Manipuri insurgency in 2002 that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led government signed an agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) [NSCN(IM)] that the ceasefire would exist ‘without territorial limits’. This phrase led to protests and rioting in Imphal which saw the state Assembly burned to the ground. Cut forward to 2015 and another BJP-led government in the centre signed the ‘historic’ and hushed Framework Agreement with the NSCN(IM). Since the contents of the agreement have not been made public, rumours and speculation have been floated regarding its implications. The NSCN(IM)’s demand for territorial integration of all Naga-inhabited areas has been a sore point in Manipur.
However, it was under the Congress-led Ibobi Singh government that Manipur saw some of its darkest days in recent history. The Ibobi Singh government, particularly in the hills, was perceived as being communally inclined towards the Meitei people. Hence, Biren Singh’s message of a modified ‘sabka saath sabka vikas (collective efforts, inclusive growth)’ was a breath of fresh air. But critics of the ruling dispensation in the state have accused Biren Singh of being nothing more than a puppet used for propagating Hindutva in Manipur. This led to the Manipur University imbroglio and the arrests of activists Thokchom Veewon and Kishorchandra Wangkhem. Though the results of the Lok Sabha election have seen Manipur give both seats to the NDA, both seats were won with less than 50% of the votes polled. This may indicate that the anti-NDA votes were divided among a divided opposition.
For the Inner Manipur constituency (the valley), Dr. Rajkumar Ranjan Singh of the BJP won against the Congress candidate Oinam Nabakishore Singh by 17,755 votes and a vote share of 34.725% Apart from Singh, there were ten other candidates contesting. In the Outer Manipur constituency (the hills), Lorho S Pfoze of the Naga People's Front (NPF) won against Houlim Shokhopao Mate of the BJP by 73,782 votes and a vote share of 42.37%. Both seats were previously held by the Congress, however, after the BJP formed the government in the state, the Congress’ fortunes seem to have diminished.
Meghalaya witnessed the inglorious end of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) when the leader of the outfit was killed in February 2018. Later, a minor altercation in a migrant-populated area of Shillong paralysed the state capital with a communal flare up between Khasis and the Mazhabi Sikhs. The flare up since then seems to have been forgotten. Then over late 2018 and early 2019, there was the unfortunate mining disaster when 15 miners were trapped in a rat-hole mine which got flooded. The accident brought to the fore once again the perils of Meghalaya’s unregulated mining industry which is technically still banned by an order from the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
However, none of these seem to have made as big an impact in the lead-up to the Lok Sabha elections as the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) has. The state unit of the BJP has repeatedly assured the people of Meghalaya that they are opposed to the CAB. In January this year, the Meghalaya cabinet passed a resolution against the CAB with a BJP member supporting the cabinet resolution. However, looking at the winning candidates in both Lok Sabha seats, the outcome was almost predetermined with each candidate retaining their respective fiefdoms.
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Meghalaya was one of the states where the BJP as a party did not make any impact. Vincent Pala won from Shillong against Jemino Mawthoh of the United Democratic Party by 1,52,433 votes. In Tura, Agatha Sangma retained the family seat for the National People's Party by 64,030 votes against former Congress chief minister Mukul Sangma. The equations in Meghalaya do not seem to have changed in any way. Pala received 53.52% of the votes and Sangma received 52.22%.
Like Meghalaya, Mizoram too was affected by the politics of the other, in this case, the non-Mizo. In November 2018, the voting rights of the displaced Bru in refugee camps in Tripura became an issue ahead of the Assembly elections. Organisations affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have attempted to project the Bru issue as a story of religious persecution being meted out by Christian Mizos against Hindu and animist Brus. However, sources in Mizoram had earlier confirmed to NewsClick that the conflict was purely ethnic and that many of the top Bru leaders were themselves Christian. The BJP, perhaps trying to further this narrative or perhaps considering that their only member in the state Assembly was a Chakma, fielded Nirupam Chakma, a non-Mizo, against the advice of the party’s state unit. Chakma received only 5.75% of the votes.
The lone seat for Mizoram went to C Lalrosanga of the Mizo National Front by a margin of 8,140 votes and a vote share of 44.89%. The runner up was an independent candidate, Lalnghinglova Hmar. He was backed by the Congress and the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) which may explain why he finished as a runner up. He is the honorary secretary of Mizoram Football Association and credited with the rise of football in Mizoram. He is also the joint editor of a Mizo daily, Vanglaini.
Ahead of the Assembly elections in 2018, the cry for ‘solution before election’ had rung out loud. The Naga public as well as political parties supported the call of holding elections only after a ‘final agreement’ was signed between the Government of India and the Naga nationalist groups. A call to boycott elections was also made and all the political parties in Nagaland signed an agreement not to file nominations. However, the solidarity was short lived and broken by the BJP which was the first party to pull out of the agreement. Subsequently, all parties filed their nominations and the elections were conducted as per schedule. In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, an attempt was made to revive the spirit, however, it failed to gain even half the traction the first call had received.
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The NDA ally, Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) candidate, Tokheho Yepthomi retained his seat against the Congress candidate KL Chishi by 16,344 votes and a vote share of 49.73%. For the Nagaland Lok Sabha seat, the flip-flopping ally of the NDA, the Naga People's Front had decided to back Chishi. The Nagaland seat in 2014 was won by Neiphiu Rio for the NPF. Rio vacated the seat as he contested the Nagaland Assembly elections in 2018. Instead of contesting on a NPF ticket, Rio broke away and formed the NDPP which then forged a pre-poll alliance with the BJP and cut out the NPF. The following election to the Lok Sabha was won by the NDPP.
North Bengal like Arunachal Pradesh too went completely saffron. In Cooch Behar, Nisith Pramanik won against Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate, Adhikary Paresh Chandra by 54,231 votes. In Darjeeling, Raju Bista won against Amar Singh Rai of the TMC by a margin of 4,13,443 votes. Dr. Jayanta Kumar Roy won against another TMC candidate, Bijoy Chandra Barman by 1,84,004 votes in Jalpaiguri. The BJP candidates’ vote share in these three constituencies was 47.98%, 59.19% and 50.65%, respectively. That Darjeeling voted for the BJP candidate whose only connection with the epicentre of the Gorkhaland movement was his linguistic identity was a surprise. Particularly since the BJP had more or less kept mum while Mamata Banerjee suppressed the Gorkhaland agitation in 2017. According to persons from the constituency who spoke with NewsClick, the vote was not pro-BJP but rather anti-TMC. The idea was to punish Mamata Banerjee for blocking food and medicine from reaching the hills during the 104-day shutdown in 2017.
Anti-incumbency has been the major factor in Sikkim’s elections. The Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) has been in power for so long, that many young voters have never seen any other government. Thus, in the days following the SDF’s loss in the Assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections, Pawan Chamling was still being referred to as ‘CM sir’ in ordinary conversation. At a local level, due to the Limboo-Tamang seat issue, a sizeable chunk of votes from both communities went to the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM). The only party in Sikkim to openly oppose the CAB has been the SKM through their spokesperson Jacob Khaling.
The NDA-allied Sikkim Krantikari Morcha's candidate, Indra Hang Subba won against the other NDA ally, Sikkim Democratic Front’s candidate Dek Bahadur Katwal by 12,433 votes and a vote share of 47.46%. Indra Hang Subba originally sided with Baichung Bhutia’s Hamro Sikkim Party, but left before nominations were filed citing a lack of internal democracy in the party. Then came a moment when he was likely to join the SDF, however, he went to the SKM. The SDF still has one representative in the Rajya Sabha, hence, both parties are aligned with the NDA in parliament.
Though the Tripuri nationalist parties such as the BJP-allied Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT) have made Twipraland their clarion call, the Lok Sabha results do not indicate that their political demand for a separate tribal state has much of a following any more. The IPFT which contested the polls alone received only 4.33% of the votes in the ST constituency of Tripura East. In Tripura West, they received only 3.99% of the votes. Considering that the BJP candidate secured less than 50% of the votes in Tripura East, like in the case of the Inner Manipur constituency, one may conclude that the anti-NDA vote was divided. However, the pro-NDA vote too was divided since the IPFT contested the polls alone.
Tripura went completely saffron and gave both seats to the BJP. In Tripura East, which is a Scheduled Tribe (ST) seat, Rebati Tripura won against the Congress' 'royal' candidate, Maharajkumari Pragya Debburman by 2,04,290 votes. In Tripura West, Pratima Bhoumik of the BJP won against Subal Bhowmik of the Congress by a margin of 3,05,689 votes. Rebati Tripura received a vote share of 46.12% and Pratima Bhoumik received 51.77%. In 2014, both seats were held by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]. However, after the BJP in alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) formed the government in 2018, the Left has been systematically and violently targeted. Hence, the fortunes of the BJP may not be entirely out of a belief in its message.
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